EWER Alert: Increased Tensions Relating To Religious Identity

August 22, 2011



During the months of February – July 2011, a high number of incidents between existing religious groups and those groups who have sought to further their activities in Timor-Leste have been witnessed throughout the territory. These incidents have occurred in the form of public demonstrations, destruction of property, physical assaults and intimidation.
This recent increase demonstrates a shift in local behaviors, as the number of incidents relating to religious identity and conflict, inter-linkages between incidents and the intensity of confrontations have increased. Prior to February 2011, previous incidents occurring since the publication of EWER’s Policy Brief on the topic in September 20091 were more sporadic and relatively isolated.
In communities where more recently established religious groups have become active, existing congregations are expressing discontent towards the activities conducted by these groups, which have been perceived, on occasion, as being disrespectful towards existing religions as well as Timorese culture and traditions. In particular, the occurrence of conversions and subsequent public declarations of new faith such as baptism ceremonies tend to trigger a hostile response.
The Constitution of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste (RDTL) states in Article 45.1 that: Every person is guaranteed the freedom of conscience, religion and worship and the religious denominations are separated from the State. However, a specific policy or legislation to regulate religious activities has not yet been finalized by the Government and National Parliament. As a result, many communities are questioning the legality of certain religious groups as they are unclear as to the current legal process for registration of religious groups.
The current system of registration under the Ministry of Justice does not designate a separate category for the registration of religious groups, but they are to apply for registration as an association or  a foundation, declaring their intention to conduct religious activities, under Decree-Law No. 5/2005 on Non-Profit-Making Corporate Bodies and NGOs. The fact that the legitimacy of this process is not well publicized has given rise to confusion and the subsequent perception that such groups are operating illegally, in contradiction to their registration status.
There is also further misunderstanding as to the correct visa type that international personnel (missionaries) should be using to conduct their activities, as there is no unique visa category for those wishing to conduct religious activities. Additional claims have been made that some personnel are holding tourist visas instead of valid working visas.
The EWER system is working toward enhanced security and community resilience in Timor-Leste. EWER monitoring data tracks information regarding incidents of violence alongside monthly situational indicators measuring potential or future conflict or violence from the sub-district to the national level. 84 trained EWER monitors are currently active in 42 sub-districts throughout the country (with plans to scale up to cover all 65 sub-districts within 2011).
The program publishes full reports on a trimestral basis, tracking monitoring data at the sub-district level. Incidents of particular concern arising through the monitoring warrant the production of a Media Alert to encourage more immediate response activities. Longer-term concerns provide basis for further research to be conducted through EWER policy briefs. EWER Reports are intended for use by stakeholders such as local and national state actors and ministries, state security forces, international organizations, non-governmental entities, civil society groups, and the public to help prevent and reduce conflict and tensions in Timor-Leste.